Caption: Colorized 3D reconstruction of dendrites. Neurons receive input from other neurons through synapses, most of which are located along the dendrites on tiny projections called spines. Credit: The Center for Sleep and Consciousness, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine
People spend about a third of their lives asleep. When we get too little shut-eye, it takes a toll on attention, learning and memory, not to mention our physical health. Virtually all animals with complex brains seem to have this same need for sleep. But exactly what is it about sleep that’s so essential?
Two NIH-funded studies in mice now offer a possible answer. The two research teams used entirely different approaches to reach the same conclusion: the brain’s neural connections grow stronger during waking hours, but scale back during snooze time. This sleep-related phenomenon apparently keeps neural circuits from overloading, ensuring that mice (and, quite likely humans) awaken with brains that are refreshed and ready to tackle new challenges.
While earning her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dylan Gee often encountered children and adolescents battling phobias, panic attacks, and other anxiety disorders. Most overcame them with the help of psychotherapy. But not all of the kids did, and Gee spent many an hour brainstorming about how to help her tougher cases, often to find that nothing worked.
What Gee noticed was that so many of the interventions she pondered were based on studies in adults. Little was actually known about the dramatic changes that a child’s developing brain undergoes and their implications for coping under stress. Gee, an assistant professor at Yale University, New Haven, CT, decided to dedicate her research career to bridging the gap between basic neuroscience and clinical interventions to treat children and adolescents with persistent anxiety and stress-related disorders.
We all know that exercise is important for a strong and healthy body. Less appreciated is that exercise seems also to be important for a strong and healthy mind, boosting memory and learning, while possibly delaying age-related cognitive decline . How is this so? Researchers have assembled a growing body of evidence that suggests skeletal muscle cells secrete proteins and other factors into the blood during exercise that have a regenerative effect on the brain.
Now, an NIH-supported study has identified a new biochemical candidate to help explore the muscle-brain connection: a protein secreted by skeletal muscle cells called cathepsin B. The study found that levels of this protein rise in the blood of people who exercise regularly, in this case running on a treadmill. In mice, brain cells treated with the protein also exhibited molecular changes associated with the production of new neurons. Interestingly, the researchers found that the memory boost normally provided by exercise is diminished in mice unable to produce cathepsin B.
Caption: PET scan images show distribution of tau (top panel) and beta-amyloid (bottom panel) across a brain with early Alzheimer’s disease. Red indicates highest levels of protein binding, dark blue the lowest, yellows and oranges indicate moderate binding. Credit: Brier et al., Sci Transl Med
In people with Alzheimer’s disease, changes in the brain begin many years before the first sign of memory problems. Those changes include the gradual accumulation of beta-amyloid peptides and tau proteins, which form plaques and tangles that are considered hallmarks of the disease. While amyloid plaques have received much attention as an early indicator of disease, until very recently there hadn’t been any way during life to measure the buildup of tau protein in the brain. As a result, much less is known about the timing and distribution of tau tangles and its relationship to memory loss.
Now, in a study published in Science Translational Medicine, an NIH-supported research team has produced some of the first maps showing where tau proteins build up in the brains of people with early Alzheimer’s disease . The new findings suggest that while beta-amyloid remains a reliable early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, tau may be a more informative predictor of a person’s cognitive decline and potential response to treatment.
Caption: The wiring diagram of a human brain, measured in a healthy individual, where the movement of water molecules is measured by diffuse tensor magnetic resonance imaging, revealing the connections. This is an example of the type of work being done by the Human Connectome Project. Source: Courtesy of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging and Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Consortium of the Human Connectome Project
For questions about why people often think, act, and perceive the world so differently, the brain is clearly an obvious place to look for answers. However, because the human brain is packed with tens of billions of neurons, which together make trillions of connections, knowing exactly where and how to look remains profoundly challenging.
Undaunted by these complexities, researchers involved in the NIH-funded Human Connectome Project (HCP) have been making progress, as shown by some intriguing recent discoveries. In a study published in Nature Neuroscience , an HCP team found that the brains of individuals with “positive” traits—such as strong cognitive skills and a healthy sense of well-being—show stronger connectivity in certain areas of the brain than do those with more “negative” traits—such as tendencies toward anger, rule-breaking, and substance use. While these findings are preliminary, they suggest it may be possible one day to understand, and perhaps even modify, the connections within the brain that are associated with human behavior in all its diversity.